REVIEW: The Martian by Andy Weir
Dear Mr. Weir,
I picked up your first novel, The Martian, because some of my friends had read and recommended it. It sounded geeky enough to please my engineer husband, so I suggested to him that we read it together.
The novel begins on the sixth sol, or Martian day, of a mission to Mars. Six astronauts who came to Mars to conduct a month-long scientific survey are informed of an impending storm. The storm arrives fast, and just as they are preparing to abort the mission at NASA’s command and take their MAV (Mars ascent vehicle) back to their ship, one astronaut, Mark Watney, is struck in the chest with the antenna of their communications dish.
Mark passes out, and because the biomonitor part of his suit was breached by the antenna, his crewmembers, unable to find him in the dust storm, believe he is dead and that they have no choice but to leave his body behind.
When Mark comes to he realizes he is both lucky and unlucky.
Lucky because his blood created a seal around antenna breach that kept oxygen from leaking out, and he manages to fix the suit and get to the NASA Hab (habitat) inside which he can survive.
Unlucky because he is alone on Mars, the communications dish is destroyed and NASA does not know he’s alive. Now he must figure out a way to communicate with earth and survive the four years until the next earth mission arrives in Mars’ environment which is hostile to all life.
After a single day of panic, Mark begins to think about how to solve these problems. He is aided by the food supplies that were meant to last six people twenty four more days. He is aided by his scientific education and by the tools and materials at his disposal. Most of all he is aided by his own ingenuity and his ability to keep a level head.
The book’s high concept could be described as Apollo 13 meets Robinson Crusoe with liberal amounts of MacGyver sprinkled in.
I don’t want to spoil the details of how Mark fights to survive or the setbacks he encounters, but they involve a lot of technical and scientific stuff that checks out as far as I can tell. At times the book felt like a fun refresher course in chemistry and electronics, bringing back my high school education. It was never dull because Mark’s situation was dire and his life depended on his ability to improvise solutions to the problems that cropped up during his stay on the red planet.
At its core, The Martian is about the triumph of Mark’s spirit over a situation that was almost impossible to survive, and thus it manages to be both a man-against-nature story and a feel-good story, no easy feat.
This is also the kind of science fiction that is accessible even to people who only read SF on rare occasion. There are no aliens or ray guns, no faster than light travel or hyperspace. The story takes place in the near and all too easily imaginable future.
It was an exciting read. I cheered for Mark every time he surmounted a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, something that happened more than once. It’s impossible not to root for him because he faces such impossible odds and yet he stubbornly clings to life.
He is also good-natured, and doesn’t blame either NASA or his crew for his horrible circumstances. He does not dwell much on his past or on who might be missing him, focusing instead on the here and now and what he must do to survive. While he has one or two moments of “Fuck this fucking planet,” he lets himself vent and then gets back to work.
The focus on the here and now serves to keep the book about Mark’s struggle for survival in the story’s present, and also to make Mark into an everyman, a character easy for readers from a variety of backgrounds to identify with.
One of Mark’s personality traits is his snarky sense of humor, and while it only gave this reader a chuckle on rare occasion, it was clear that it helped Mark keep his spirits up for all that he had to face.
The story is far-fetched because even with all his skills and hard work, Mark is also very, very lucky not to have more disastrous setbacks than the ones he encounters.
My husband pointed out some plot devices to me—it seems unlikely that NASA would want the crew to take off during a storm, or that the crew wouldn’t leave more working cameras behind to capture images for NASA. He also felt that NASA would have had enough sense to make the Hab modular.
A bigger issue was the writing. Mark is an astronaut, so I didn’t expect elegant prose from his log entries. But the whole book was written in a similar style, and the dialogue especially included some clunky lines, with multiple characters sharing similar verbal ticks. (Many of them were fond of saying “Mmm” for example).
Additionally, many of the characters shared a certain immaturity which may be believable in a few but seemed too widespread. The office politics at NASA were not that convincing, for example.
The denouement had believability issues, too.
The Martian is not a masterpiece of characterization or word smithing, but it has some terrifically entertaining storytelling, a very heroic hero, and it makes science fun. C+/B-
OOO I liked this book a lot when I read it. Of course there is a lot of “Robinson Cruso”, but for me it also had echos of Jules Verne’s “Mysterious Island”. I like survival books with lots of science thrown it if it showcases the best of humanity and I felt like the book offered that.
I think I pretty much agree with your review.
Wow, from the demand for this I thought it’d do better. Guess we can expect sales to tank soon, huh? The power of reviews.
I really liked this, but it may have been as much for the palate cleansing effect as anything else. I thought of Mark as Q meets McGyver.
@Greg Strandberg: No idea who you are or what demand there was for this book, but you can be assured that C+/B- is a pretty good grade round here. Readers are capable of looking at nuanced reviews like this one and making up their own minds. No white-knighting required.
@Sirius: I haven’t read the Jules Verne but agreed, survival stories that showcase the best of humanity, as this one did, are very appealing. I liked the first three quarters or so a great deal, but the more I thought of it the more difficult to believe the events that happened from the point when Mark entered Schiaparelli Crater seemed. Hence the grade.
@Greg Strandberg: Is that irony? Your last sentence gave me a chuckle.
Both of us, me and the science guy, enjoyed this book a lot, because of the storytelling and Mark’s attitude. Everything, including the science, was accessible and interesting for me and I truly didn’t care how implausible any of it was. The most fun I’ve had between the pages in quite a while.
@Darlynne: My husband and I enjoyed it too– I hope the review makes that clear. I agree the science was interesting and accessible.
The implausibilities that made the biggest difference to me weren’t the scientific ones (although one of those toward the end bugged me–if only it didn’t involve a spoiler), but rather, implausibilities in the side characters’ actions and behaviors.
@Erin Burns: “Q meets MacGyver” is a cute way to put it.
@Ros: I think Greg is referring to The Martian‘s bestseller status in the US. It is also being made into a movie with Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jessica Chastain. I’m not sure if Greg is serious, though. I doubt my review could make a dent in the book’s popularity.
I’ve wanted to read this ever since I heard an interview with the author; apparently it was written as an online serial, with readers offering new conundrums for Mark to face and proposing potential solutions. Not exactly a “crowdsourced” novel, but certainly a collaborative one, in the best possible sense.
Of course, I’ll have to wait for our copies to get off the “holds” list. Maybe your review will do the trick of dampening down the demand! :-)
I’m at 60% in this book and really liking it. Not looking at your spoiler. Not. Looking……
I enjoy Mark’s voice so much. It’s really making this book for me. I chuckle at his unexpected comments. I’d want to be stranded anywhere with him. :)
Plus, is it just me, or did you notice how the author is seamlessly juggling first person, third person and omniscient pov? Sometimes you’re with Mark, then Venkat, then the crew as a whole. I like that. Maybe because I’m in a “not broadening my horizons” slump and reading exclusively romance, but this seems fresh to me. I mean I’m starting to really enjoy first person present tense, so you can see how deep I’ve gone into the romance rabbit hole!
So excited to hear Matt Damon will play Mark. Perfect,
@hapax: That is cool. The conundrums are a big part of the plot. I didn’t know it had been written that way, but I read that it was available free at the author’s site (no idea if it still is) and that he only put it up on Amazon because his readers asked him to do it.
My review will either cause people to bury their copies of the book, or to paper their walls with its pages. ;-)
@Michele Mills: No spoilers for you, but I will say that I liked it better at 60% than I did at 100%. You may feel differently, though.
I loved the juggling of first person, third person and omniscient. That first Venkat section made me want to cheer NASA on. But I did feel the author struggled a bit with third person. It was a little clunky that the secondary characters had some of the same verbal ticks or would make the same comments. More differentiation between the secondary characters was needed.
I listened to this as an audiobook and I have to say … one of the best books I’ve listened to in a while. Husband, sister and BIL have listened to it also and loved it – the narrator make this story as he gets Mark just right, snark and all. If you get the chance – go for the audiobook, it is total entertainment.
I read The Martian back in April and shared so many snippets with my husband that he became interested in reading it, too. We ended up listening to it together on a long car trip. My husband enjoyed the book as well and described it as ‘porn for engineers.’
@Peggy P: Thanks for the recommendation!
@Kareni: “Porn for engineers” — that’s great! That’s the reason I read it with my husband (we read aloud to each other)–he has a background in more than one kind of engineering so it was the perfect book to read together.
I picked this up solely because if the audiobook reviews – it isn’t normal fare by any means – I’m one if those non-sci-fi readers – RC Bray who narrated was perfect and when I read that it had started as a serial if log entries – it felt more right – definately lots of implausibility but a great NF to pair with it would be Packing for Mars by Mary Roach – she peripherally touched on some of the stuff in the book
When I first heard of this book, it sounded like the Don Cheadle character’s experience in Mission to Mars. A second expedition group arrives on Mars thinking all of the members of the previous expedition had been killed, and there’s Don Cheadle with his jury-rigged habitat, complete with greenhouse.
I may have to try out this book.
@Dee: I haven’t read the Mary Roach but I’ve heard great things about her books. Jayne has reviewed a few of them and they always sound interesting.
@Susan: Hmm, it does sound similar, though not exactly the same. I hope you enjoy it. I might have to check out that movie. I loved Cheadle in some of his other films.
The Martian was my No. 1 favourite book of last year. Perhaps that was assisted by an excellent narration, as I listened to the audiobook. I thought it was a great popcorn type book. The tension kept ratcheting up, I thought the pacing was consistent and the plot clever, and I loved the humour of it. I really didn’t have much by way of complaint at all, as far as I can remember.
I gave the paperback to my brother as part of his Christmas present and he, who is a reader who actively avoids books with 1st person POV, ended up loving it so I got good sister points out of it. (Go me!)
I loved Mark’s resilience and inventiveness. I thought the science was explained in a down-to-earth, accessible way that didn’t condescend to the reader. More, please.
@Janine: I don’t think the movie is worth your time just for the Cheadle bits. It was a pretty serious waste of talent all around.
@Susan: That’s what I’ve been thinking!!! LOL. Whenever I think of it, that’s what I think of.
@Susan: Oh yeah, I maintain that Tim Robbins was so embarrassed by the script (spoiler alert) he killed his character off rather than keep going with the film! This is the film with the classic “Point of No Return” alert on the wrist unit. *rolls eyes hard*
Yep, this book’s taken off and I don’t think a string of bad reviews from here to the red planet would stop it now. Even an attack on J.K. Rowling by the author couldn’t slow it, in my opinion. A Don Cheadle accent might give it pause, however.
Don’t you be dissing Don Cheadle. He *rocks*.
The audiobook version of The Martian was amazing. A real joy. The narrator did voices for each character. I loved it :)
Don Cheadle forever!
@Kaetrin: It is a fun book and a good one to recommend to guys.
@lisa: I’m also interested to see what Weir writes next.
@Susan, MrsJoseph & Kaetrin: Okay I won’t watch that movie, though that’s a shame.
@Greg Strandberg: Re. the book, agreed. And this is not a bad review. Don Cheadle is awesome– you need to check out Hotel Rwanda if you don’t think so.
@S. J. Pajonas: Multiple readers have recommended the audiobook — it must be really great.
@Ann Somerville & MrsJoseph: Hear hear!
It’s lovely reading everyone’s opinions – Andy Weir is my cousin, and a pretty cool guy in my admitadly biased opinion :). So I’ve been following how his book is being received, but I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting to see it here!!
@hapax – That’s exactly what happened. He only put it on kindle originally because fans begged him too. So he posted it for the cheapest possible on amazon while leaving it free on his webpage – at least until Random House came knocking.
@lisa Andy is working on his 2nd book, he did say that it will be tonally different – though it still sounds awesome. And he’s a pretty tongue in cheek guy, so I’m sure that will show up in anything he writes :).
@haruko: How very cool. What is his second book about? Can you tell us?